When Han (Shih Kien), a reclusive crime boss suspected of running an international drug ring, briefly opens his private island to host a vicious martial arts tournament, the FBI is anxious to seize the opportunity to bust him. They enlist the help of Lee (Bruce Lee -- for the purposes of the review, I'll refer to the actor as "Bruce" and the character as "Lee"), a Chinese martial arts master, to infiltrate the island, along with American partners Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly). Their instructions are to gather proof of Han's dirty dealings and call in the cavalry, but Han's island is crawling with guards, traps, and a massive guest list of martial arts masters who would love to take any one of them down, permanently.
Having recently reviewed other movies for DVDTalk, the simplicity of what elevates Enter the Dragon over all of Bruce's other movies is shockingly simple: it's the only one that offers Bruce a character that is as cool in the movie's story as Bruce is in real life, and that tiny change makes a world of difference. In Bruce's other movies, there's a moral or dramatic conflict that places a wall between the audience and the actions of his characters; here, the audience can freely root for the guy to kick ass.
Right from the start, the film is amping up Lee's legend: he has such a reputation that the American FBI is knocking on his door, begging for his help. Some actors might come off as arrogant or cheesy doing a scene where they listlessly unleash a snake in a guard office, but for Bruce, it's a star-making moment. Although Dragon extensively delays the audience the pleasure of seeing Lee in a face-to-face showdown with his sister's murderer, Oharra (Bob Wall), Bruce has more than enough screen presence to make his James Bond routine just as interesting, sneaking around the island. Meanwhile, Roper and Williams stave off the hunger for fights with a few brawls, not to mention Saxon and Kelly are plenty charismatic on their own, adding even more style and personality to a film that's already bursting with it.
It's kind of amazing (or horrible, maybe) to think that Robert Clouse is the director of both the best and worst Bruce Lee pictures. Although the movie is a vehicle for Lee, he allows a little of his lead to go a long way, establishing Han's ruthlessness in a sequence with Roper, and giving Kelly plenty of memorable moments, including the line that sums up the whole movie (quoted at the top). Williams is right, too: Clouse makes Han's island an eye-popping, colorful marvel, filled with bird cages, torture dungeons, and secret rooms. Even before Han's glorious "injury" is revealed, his lair outs him as a straight-up supervillain. In terms of action direction, Clouse's shot choices are dynamic without sacrificing clarity, and he employs judicious use of slow motion to emphasize a hit or two. The final showdown, which takes place in a mirrored room, honestly doesn't make much sense from a practical standpoint, but Clouse makes it kinda believable anyway, injecting enough visual fireworks and carefully blocked shots to stitch the fight together.
Good story and good character are the cornerstones of any movie, but a good action movie can get by on personality. Modern action movies tend to churn up an excess of plot and character backstory in the hopes that viewers will think "a bunch" is the same as "good," but all the twists in the world can't do as much to save a hacky action movie as a bona-fide movie star. Enter the Dragon isn't hacky. It's got simplicity and style that works in concert with the film's sillier elements, and it's also got Bruce Lee. The movie is as fun today as it was 40 years ago, and it stands tall as an action classic worthy of Lee's legacy.
The Video and Audio
First, the positives. The aliasing is gone. No more jagged edges. Instead, this new 2.40:1 1080p AVC transfer looks very film-like, with a healthy layer of grain and a softness that I believe is inherent to the source. Some will be frustrated that Enter the Dragon isn't sharper, but even with the limitations of this new version, there were some well-lit interiors that looked like a 2012 film to me. Of course, some of that comes from the big negative: modern, revisionist color timing. Lee's blue outfit at the beginning of the movie is now a faint teal. The sea is an emerald green. Skin tones are occasionally orange. Contrast also feels a little heavy, offering a much darker image than the last disc. There is also an extremely minor amount of cropping, with this framed at 2.40 instead of 2.35. On the whole, I strongly believe this is an improvement, simply thanks to the amount of aliasing on the old disc, but it's not the leaps-and-bounds improvement that fans were hoping for.
The disc also boasts a new DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, which is nice and problem-free. It's lamentable that the original mono mix is not included, but the directionality and definition of this surround sound up-mix is very nice. Punches and kicks have a pleasing crispness to them, without any hint of echo or fuzziness that often comes with old martial arts movies (albeit, not ones as well-preserved as Enter the Dragon). Lalo Schifrin's score sounds lush and vibrant. French and Spanish mono tracks (Castillian and Latin 2S), French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
However, after Warner released the initial Blu-Ray, they lost the rights to an extra that was on both releases: John Little's feature-length documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey. The 2007 Blu-Ray was re-released without it before going out of print, and Warner has not regained control of it for this release. Widely regarded as one of the best pieces on Lee's legacy, it's a huge loss and fans should remember to hold onto their 2-disc DVDs or 2007 Blus if they want to keep this extra.
To try and make up for the loss, Warner has produced three new featurettes for this 40th Anniversary, but even without the direct comparison to A Warrior's Journey, they're a little underwhelming. "No Way as Way" (26:28, HD) is the best of these extras, featuring famous fans Sugar Ray Leonard, George Takei, DJ Steve Aoki, and Lee's widow Linda Lee Caldwell, his daughter Sharon, and her daughter Wren Lee Keasler, speaking about philosophical concepts that Lee embraced and how they fed into Enter the Dragon. The balance leans heavily in favor of the philosophy -- don't expect much serious talk about the making of Enter the Dragon, but it's kind of interesting that the participants get to talk more about their own philosophies, which are similar to Lee's, rather than fawning over Lee for a half hour. "Wing Chun: The Art that Introduced Kung Fu to Bruce Lee" (20:02, HD) and "Return to Han's Island: The Locales of Enter the Dragon" (10:25, HD). The first is, as indicated by its title, is focused more on Wing Chun than Lee or Enter the Dragon. Not to diss history or culture, but I don't think this particular extra is interesting enough to overcome the fact that it's not about the movie. As for the other clip, revisiting the sets of films years later has never been of great interest to me (it sounds like a great thing to do in person...not so much from the comfort of your own home), but setting aside that bias, it's fine. The most interesting aspect of these second two extras comes at the beginning of the second piece -- what sounds like original audio from the monk scene, which has been re-dubbed by Rich Little in the film.